[TW: This article includes discussion of rape, domestic violence and eating disorders.]
The first time I listened to Kanye West’s eighth studio album, “ye” (2018), I was on a train from Paris to Amsterdam. Light rain over the Euro- pean countryside created the perfect backdrop for perhaps the most beautifully melancholy—while also terrifyingly angry—Kanye record to date. An introspective ode to his own fear, depression and sense of being lost, “ye” was released at Kanye’s most controversial moment in the public eye, exactly one month after his in- famous claim that hundreds of years of African-American slavery in the United States “sounds like a choice” (Rolling Stone, “Kanye West Says 400 Years of Slavery ‘Sounds Like a Choice,’” 01.05.2018).
The album offers a peek into the mind of this incredibly influential man, who increasingly embodies the phrase he coined years ago in his song “Feedback”: “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.”
While barreling through Belgium on my high-speed train, I began a ritual that I developed years ago. I do not listen to any songs from a newly released album until I can devote the time to hear said album in its entirety, twice. Next to me, my boyfriend, who does not share this somewhat neurotic inclination, gave his own review of the record, which he had listened to in bits and pieces during our time in Paris: “Kanye’s washed.”
I began to listen. I felt a little weird about it. As a white person and a staunch liberal, I felt that perhaps I should not continue to listen to Kanye following his slavery-was-a-choice and pro-Trump comments. His music is largely not created for me, although I may love it. I was aware of my choice to financially and emotion- ally support Kanye by streaming his music. I listened anyway.
When I reached the album’s last song, “Violent Crimes,” it occurred to me that Kanye was in a somewhat similar place to me. I was listen- ing from the perspective of a white oppressor and trying to recognize the implications of that; he was writing from the perspective of a male oppressor and trying to stress how he had recently come to understand what that means.
The lyrics, as the song’s title suggests, are violent, painting vivid images of domestic violence and alluding to the “scary nights” that women in abusive situations experience. How- ever, the melody is of the softer persuasion, overlaid with the steady, feminine voice of 070 Shake (Danielle Balbuena) and filled with thoughtful, heavy pauses. This juxtaposition of music and lyrics conjures the album’s opening line from “I Thought About Killing You:” “The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest.” This sentiment is evident throughout the record but particularly in “Violent Crimes”: Kanye writes about the beauty he has found in his love for his daughters and how it affects his perception of his past.
It is a noble effort, but as I listened, I began to feel that the song was only half of a conversation. In an attempt to find the other side, I pulled out the book I had been reading: Roxane Gay’s memoir “Hunger.”
The book, like Kanye’s album, opens by de- scribing itself: “Everybody has a story and a history. Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger” (Roxane Gay, “Hunger,” 2017). Gay goes on to describe her childhood, which concluded at age 12 when she was violently gang raped. Following this trauma, she fell into patterns of depression and developed an acute eating disorder in which she compulsively consumed large amounts of food over many years, eventually reaching the qualification of “super morbidly obese.” She illustrates the most extreme case of the effects that societal norms (such as distorted media portray- al and rape culture) have on young women’s psyches. Gay sums this up in one phrase, one all too familiar to me and to most women I know: “I want to look good. I want to feel good. I want to be beautiful in this body I am in” (Gay).
I could tell you infinite stories of my friends’ and my own body image–related pain. In my day-to-day life as a 19-year-old woman, I have heard thin girls proclaim, “I wish I could develop an eating disorder.” I have watched my friends pinch fat, edit their stomachs in Insta- gram bikini pictures until they look impossibly thin and describe their hips as “awkward” if they don’t mirror Kardashian curves. I have seen calories counted, meals skipped and many tears shed.
For these reasons and more, it is painful to hear Kanye rap, “I am a n****, I know what they want/I pray that you don’t get it all at once/ Curves under your dress, I know it’s pervs all on the ‘net.’” Here, Kanye is asserting the claim with which most teenage girls know well: that the only body that people want, the only shape that is desirable, is the impossible silhouette of his wife. Simultaneously, Kanye excuses men’s violence against women, implying that it is the woman’s fault for making her body resemble said desirable shape. He advises that, in order for his daughter to escape danger, she should follow these instructions: “Don’t do no yoga, don’t do pilates/Just play piano and stick to karate,” because if her “body’s draped more like [Kanye’s] and not like her mommy’s,” she will be safe from the “pervs all on the ‘net/All in the comments.”
This is the logic to which “Hunger” responds. Gay, at just 12 years old, came to the same conclusion as Kanye at age 40: The desirability of our bodies is deeply connected to their safety. Gay writes, “Losing control of my body was a matter of accretion. I began eating to change my body. I was willful in this. Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to endure another such violation, and so I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away. Even at that young age, I understood that to be fat was to be undesirable to men, to be beneath their contempt, and I already knew too much about their contempt” (Gay). In this way, Gay took Kanye’s advice: she didn’t “do […] yoga” or pilates; she stuck to eating away the emotional effect of violent crimes committed against her.
With this in mind, Kanye’s song becomes more than a description of what he fears will happen to his daughters and what did happen to Gay. It is an admission of his guilt over having been the perpetrator of these “Violent Crimes” in his past life—the one before his daughter North was born.
The song opens with an almost eerie refrain, sung by 070 Shake, which may be interpreted as Kanye describing his feelings about his own crimes: “Falling, dreaming, talking in your sleep/I know you want to cry all night/ Plotting, scheming, finding/Reason to defend all of your violent nights.” This reading of the verse, in which the above is an image of the artist himself wrestling with guilt about his past, seems almost confirmed by the first lines he raps in the song: “N***** is savage, n***** is monsters/n***** is pimps, n***** is players/’Til n***** have daughters, now they pre- cautious/Father, forgive me, I’m scared of the karma/’Cause now I see women as something to nurture/Not something to conquer.” The pre-daughter Kanye was a “savage,” a “monster,” a “pimp” and a “player,” and now in his paternal stage of life, he lies in bed at night sick over his past actions. Following that opening refrain in which the rapper speaks to himself, there is a pause almost too long to be allowed— long enough to cause me to check if the song was even still playing the first time I heard it. Then the voice continues, having used the break to change from an introspective Kanye to a paternal one: “Don’t you grow up in a hurry, your mom’ll be worried.” This switch introduces us to the two Kanyes who are in conversation throughout the song: Kanye the “monster” and Kanye the protector.
This interaction is encapsulated later, when Kanye describes a hypothetical scenario in which his daughter is the victim of domestic violence: “Then he whoop her ass, you go through it again/But how you the devil rebukin’ the sin?” While this may be a reference to the previous line, in which Kanye imagines him- self “whoop[ing] her ass” for “cutting class and hanging with friends,” it also draws a potential comparison between pre-North Kanye and North’s hypothetical boyfriend. Kanye “the devil,” guilty of the same violent crimes, reborn as a father, “[rebukes] the sin.”
There are, of course, many other interpretations of these lyrics, but that is what occurred to me as I sped toward Amsterdam. Weeks later, when I arrived back home in Brooklyn, I began to explore said other interpretations by float- ing my ideas among friends. In a cab to a party once, a male friend played “Violent Crimes,” and I offered up my theories.
“Do you really think this song is about sexual assault, though?,” he asked. I was astounded. To me, it seemed so obvious: Violent crimes against women, committed by “pervs.” Men, described as “savage […] monsters,” who saw women as “something to conquer.” “What else could that refer to?,” I wondered aloud.
“I think it’s just about his daughters growing up,” another guy in the car said.
The girl sitting next to me looked just as con- fused as I felt. “Well, maybe that’s the problem,” she suggested. “If a song about a daughter grow- ing up is a song about her undergoing physical abuse from both her father and her boyfriend because she did too much yoga, there’s some- thing wrong. And if the father isn’t at all surprised by that scenario because it reminds him of his own youth, you have to wonder about him, too.”
On a different occasion, the song came on when I was sitting in a friend’s backyard ham- mock while he played beer pong with another guy. Again, I offered my thoughts.
“I mean, if you have a body like Kim Kardashian’s, it’s objectively a good body,” he said. I looked at a different friend, who was sitting
across from me. She had been struggling with her body image particularly in the past few months, although it had always been an issue. I could feel the influence of this attractive, charismatic male friend of ours on her; His words were being rapidly internalized, translating to “You would have to look like Kim Kardashian in order for someone like this to be interested in you. You would have to look that way in order to have a ‘good’ body. Your body right now is bad.”
I replied to him for her, in an attempt to stop the cycle I was witnessing, to which he was obviously oblivious. “When you, as an attractive boy, say something like that to a group of young women, it sounds to us like we have to look that way in order to be ‘good.’ ”
“No, it doesn’t,” he said.
My friend and I laughed. “But how can you say that? I’m telling you how it feels to me. It doesn’t matter if that’s what you meant.”
He pondered for a moment. “Okay, well how about this: I think Kim Kardashian’s body is objectively good because I’ve been socialized to think that.” He smirked, satisfied with himself, and tossed the ping-pong ball into his opponent’s cup. “Swish.”
At the beach on a different day, a friend asked me what I thought of the album. She ruminated on my ideas for a while before concluding, “I just don’t think Kanye’s admitting to any sexual assault. That’s a pretty big assumption.” I responded by referencing a line from earlier in the album, in which Kanye states, “Russell Simmons wanna pray for me too/I’ma pray for him ‘cause he got #MeToo’d/Thinkin’ what if that happened to me too.” This line implies that Kanye fears the #MeToo movement either on the basis of sexual crimes he has committed or because he feels that claims of sexual assault are false—both interpretations offer scary and offensive implications.
My friend shook her head. “That’s just not enough to say he’s actually guilty of anything.”
She had a point, but whether or not Kanye has committed crimes in the past, there is a definite guilty conscience present in “Violent Crimes.”
Consider the titles. “Hunger.” “Violent Crimes.” They hold a cause-and-effect relation- ship. For Kanye, it was hunger—for strength, for pleasure, for dominance—that would have led to his (loosely implied) violent crimes. For Gay, it was violent crimes that caused her hunger— for safety, for comfort, for unattainable fullness. The conversation between the two adds dimension to conversations many of us have already been participating in. Here, we see Kanye’s perspective, that women who look a certain way al- most deserve to be objectified and conquered.
Twelve-year-old Gay’s response is to believe the same thing about herself. The difference is that, while adult Gay recognizes how harmful this mentality is and the profound impact it has had on her life, Kanye’s reaction is to instruct young women to fall into the same patterns that Gay herself did: to make their bodies less stereotypically desirable in order to keep them- selves safe. This lesson to his daughters raises the question: What is Kanye teaching his sons?